Three Key Matchups: Seahawks vs 49ers

Given the rivalry and that the Seahawks and 49ers faced off just three weeks ago, these clubs know each other very well. That makes the competition in the individual battles all more personal and compelling. Sure, the usual suspects will play a key role determining the winner of this critical NFC West matchup, but injuries on both teams have thrust new players into the spotlight, as well.

As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis. Scout.com brought in greater Seattle resident and NFL scout Rob Rang to help determine the individual matchups that will determine whether the Seahawks will win or lose this week.

Here are his thoughts on the three critical one-on-one matchups for this week's game.


49ers C Joe Looney vs. Seahawks DTs Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Jordan Hill

The NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals suffered yet another injury at quarterback Thursday night with Drew Stanton going down with a knee sprain, forcing third-stringer Ryan Lindley onto the field against the St. Louis Rams. The 49ers have suffered similar durability issues at center with starter Daniel Kilgore going down with a broken ankle early in the year and talented rookie Marcus Martin officially listed as questionable for this contest due to a knee injury he suffered in the fourth quarter of San Francisco's loss last week to the Oakland Raiders. Looney, a natural guard, took over for Martin last week. He's expected to make his third career start (and first at center) on Sunday if Martin is unable to play.

The 6-3, 309 pound Looney is a broad, powerful blocker who can drive defenders off the ball to create holes in the running game. He has good feet but possesses relatively short arms (32 1/4") and can get himself over-extended in pass protection, leaving gaps for interior pass rushers to exploit. That could be music the ears of Bennett and Hill, whose quickness has allowed them to penetrate and wreak havoc in opponents' backfields.

Williams isn't as quick but his length and power could give Looney trouble, as well. Further, the 12-year vet has plenty of tricks, which could take away the powerful inside running game that Jim Harbaugh has featured in San Francisco and previously at Stanford.

49ers TE Vernon Davis vs. Seahawks OLB K.J. Wright

Speaking of Stanford, Looney could be joined by former Cardinal (and Miami Dolphin) Jonathan Martin up front for the 49ers if right tackle Anthony Davis remains sidelined due to a concussion he suffered November 16 in a win over the New York Giants. Regardless of whether it is Martin or Davis returning, the 49ers are expected to call on Vernon Davis often against the Seahawks - it just may not come in the form most are expecting.

While Davis' straight-line speed remains his most unique feature (he was clocked at a mind-boggling 4.38 seconds at 6-3, 254 pounds at the 2006 Combine), he's also a surprisingly stout run blocker. If the 49ers can't run up the middle, don't expect them to simply vacate the tactic. They'll look to Davis and their offensive tackles to seal off Seattle's perimeter box defenders in an attempt to run outside.

The Seahawks' defensive ends (especially Tony McDaniel) have done a nice job of keeping contain up front. Wright's length and agility make him also very effective in this regard.

While Davis' blocking has been a relative bright spot for the 49ers struggling offense, Davis has been virtually invisible in the passing game, after leading the club with 13 touchdowns a year ago. By comparison, he's caught just 25 passes this year for 236 yards and two scores - each of which came in a season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys.

One of the Seahawks' few vulnerabilities this year has been defending tight ends. Though Seattle held Davis to just two receptions for 13 yards on Thanksgiving, Wright was beaten last week by Philadelphia's Zach Ertz for the Eagles' lone score. That's something that the 49ers could be looking at as a way of jump-starting their offense.

Davis certainly sounds ready to become more of a featured presence in the passing game.

"I look at myself as a playmaker," Davis said when asked this week why his production has fallen. "Not just someone who's blocking. I enjoy it. I would love to be involved a little bit more. I would love that. That would be amazing. But like I said, it's out of my control. All I can do is come here, show up and take care of my responsibilities."

Seahawks WRs Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse vs. 49ers CB Dontae Johnson

While the Seahawks aerial attack hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard, Russell Wilson and Co. are certainly producing big plays more often than San Francisco, which ranks dead last in points per game over the past two months. The strength of the 49ers lies with pass rushers Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks and therefore this isn't the game to expect the Seahawks to suddenly test the 49ers with the long ball. That said, with rookie Dontae Johnson likely to earn the first start of his career, Wilson may look to test his former North Carolina State teammate.

Johnson has the combination of length (6-2, 200) and speed (4.45) to make scouts drool but like a lot of lanky corners, he doesn't change directions as fluidly as smaller, quicker players. Baldwin, in particular, should be able to create separation against Johnson, who split his collegiate time between cornerback and safety.

Johnson could get pressed into starting duty with San Francisco's normal starters Tramaine Brock (hamstring) and Chris Culliver (knee) each officially questionable for this game.

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